Written at a key moment in the Cuban revolution by one of its central figures. Rubén Martínez Villena, an early militant of the Cuban Communist Party, lawyer and comrade to Julian Mella, began radical life as a writer and barrister in the early 1920s, went on to lead the general strike that overthrew Gerardo Machado’s government shortly after this was written. Suffering from tuberculosis, comrade Villena died six months after this was written on January 16, 1934.
‘The Rise of the Revolutionary Movement in Cuba’ by Rubén Martínez Villena from The Communist. Vol. 12 No. 6. June, 1933.
IN THE CARIBBEAN, we find nowhere at the present time a revolutionary movement at a higher level of development or of greater importance than that in Cuba, where recent events and struggles indicate definite gains in the rise of the revolutionary movement, a rise which in the course of its development is spiraling still higher.
The difference in the level reached by the revolutionary movement in Cuba, compared with that which obtains in the other Caribbean countries, is due in great part to the greater intensity and depth with which the world crisis has affected, and is continuing to affect the economy of that country.
Moreover, it is also important to take note of the existence in Cuba, already for many years, of revolutionary working class trade unions which possess great fighting traditions, and follow the line of the Red International of Labor Unions and of the Latin-American Trade Union Federation; and the weakness of the influence enjoyed by the reformist unions in the working class movement compared with the influence that these latter enjoy, for example, in Mexico and Colombia.
It will be necessary for us to show the principal reasons why the economic crisis has weighed so heavily on Cuba, and then go on to point out the most striking characteristics of this process through a dialectical examination of its development. It will especially be necessary to bring out in bold relief the internal contradictions of the imperialist regime in Cuba, not only because of the importance which these contradictions play in any understanding of the economic situation of the country, but also because only by describing and considering these contradictions will we be able to come to a genuine understanding of the political events now taking place in Cuba, of the maneuvers of the government and of the bourgeois-landlord opposition, of the respective connections of these two distinct groups with the industrialists and financiers of the United States as well as with the government in Washington. Only by considering these contradictions can we also obtain a clear view of the perspectives that now present themselves to the revolutionary movement of the masses. The first part of the article is devoted to these ends.
The second part of the article will deal with the rise of the revolutionary movement in Cuba—a rise basically motivated by the economic crisis—and in it we will try particularly to explain the most salient factors responsible for the revolutionary upsurge, giving particular attention to the strike of the workers in the sugar industry which is now taking place—this being without any kind of doubt the most important of the struggles of the Cuban masses against imperialism.
The crisis has led rapidly to the complete ruin of the two major industries of Cuba, tobacco and sugar, particularly of the latter. The importance of the bankruptcy of the sugar industry to the general economic situation of the country finds no parallel in any other country, even in those Caribbean countries whose economics are based on the culture of one raw product only. That is to say, there is no other country in the Caribbean, the economic situation of which is so completely determined by one given crop as is the Cuban economy by sugar. This has been shown in the most emphatic way both during the period of the so-called “dance of the millions” (the years 1918 down to the first half of 1920), and during the time of bankruptcies and unexampled poverty which came as a result of the violent fall in prices and of the speculation that took place in the second half of 1920. It is still manifest in the present situation of complete collapse of the whole economic structure of the country; and in the general misery of the people, which intensifies in proportion as the crisis in the sugar industry continues to get worse and worse.
To any discussion of the place which the sugar industry holds in Cuba, as the very ground and basis of the whole economy of the country, it must be added that, in comparison with the slump that has taken place in other products that play dominant roles in the mono-cultural economies of other Caribbean countries (coffee and bananas, for example), the sugar crisis in Cuba has shown almost from the beginning a different characteristic: namely, that, together with the fall in prices, there came a decrease in the acreage of production, due to the measures of restriction which were put into practice by the Machado government and by the sugar barons in their search for a way out of the crisis (the restrictions of the sugar harvest since 1927, and the Chadbourne Plan). This decrease in production has carried with it the automatic dismissal of thousands of workers from the plantations and from industry, a fact which in Cuba has had particularly serious results in intensifying and further extending unemployment.
Moreover, the general crisis in the sugar industry (overproduction, and the fall in prices) has been intensified in Cuba by virtue of a third factor: namely, the struggle between the American beet and cane sugar interests, who manufacture their sugar within the tariff-protected frontiers of the United States (in the U. S. itself, Porto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii), and the cane-sugar manufacturers in Cuba, who are also for the most part Americans but whose products, considered as foreign, have to pay tax to the United States custom authorities. Analogous contradictions in the camp of imperialists exercising control over the fundamental products of a country, do not exist in any other centers of American imperialist rule in Latin America, except in the case—in Guatemala and Honduras—of the struggles between the Cuyamel Fruit Company and the United Fruit Company, struggles which sometimes take the form of open war-like actions across the frontiers.
The conflict between the two rival groups of sugar manufacturers in Cuba, each fighting for a larger share of the American market for their respective products, has a definite connection with the raising of the United States tariff against Cuban sugar, thereby aggravating the crisis in the sugar industry and, consequently, the economic crisis in the whole of the country.
The ferocious offensive against the working class and against the poor and middle peasants has been redoubled, with the purpose of transferring onto the backs of these classes the whole weight, and all of the consequences, of this crisis. The object of the Cuban sugar barons is to force down their costs of production practically to zero point.
The successive restrictions of the sugar harvest made under the Chadbourne Plan—itself a reflection of these internal contradictions, and a maneuver to achieve the impossible and pay back the American bank credits out of the blood of the people—have reduced the sugar production of Cuba from 5,000,000 tons in 1929 (the only free harvest since 1927) to only 2,000,000 tons at the present time. Forty per cent of the working force in the principal industries are now unemployed, The wages bill in the sugar industry has decreased by 50 per cent since 1929, and for industry as a whole, the decrease since July, 1931, has been 40 per cent.
This catastrophic decline in the purchasing power of the masses has reduced imports to almost inconceivably low figures, and not only the balance of trade, but also the international balance of payments, shows an enormous deficit. Thus the government, whose principal source of income is from customs dues, will be faced in the very near future with complete bankruptcy.
Drastic reductions in the budget, at the expense of thousands of state employees, and a vicious fiscal attack on all fronts to tear away from the masses, by means of new taxes, enough money to pay the service of the foreign debt—these will be the measures adopted by the government—and these measures, which are the results of the crisis, will further aggravate the crisis, with each step bringing new sections of the population under the yoke.
As a consequence of all this, the contradictions which exist in the camp of the bourgeoisie, the feudalistic landowners and the imperialists have been further accentuated. ‘The most important of these contradictions are as follows: the. contradictions within American capitalism itself between the two rival groups of sugar manufacturers; the contradiction between the American cane sugar manufacturers in Cuba, large enterprises that posses sugar refineries in the United States which allow them to get around the tariffs by refining their sugar within the United States, and those American or Cuban manufacturers who have no connections with refineries and thus, finding themselves at a differential disadvantage, have begun a struggle against the refineries in the United States and for a native refining industry in Cuba; the contradiction between the sugar planters and the large millowners in the struggle to divide up the profit on each bag of sugar; the contradiction between the American exporters from Cuba and the American sugar manufacturers, which is responsible both for the fall in the figures of Cuban imports as well as for the raising of Cuban tariffs against certain products manufactured in the United States; the contradiction which undoubtedly exists between these American exporters situated in Cuba and the particular section of the Cuban bourgeoisie who are, through their dependence on the banks, placed in the position of the Cuban servants of American imperialism.
Along with the accentuation of these main internal contradictions it is necessary to point out that the basic conflict between the exploiters and the oppressed masses has also become more acute. Only by giving to this main contradiction its due weight can we obtain even an approximate picture of the economic situation under the influence of which the sharpening class struggle and the powerful and growing revolutionary movement is developing in Cuba.
The main problem for the imperialist rulers of Cuba is not the struggle against the national bourgeoisie, which it would of necessity vanquish, since even if the main body of the national bourgeoisie is not directly linked to the imperialist interests, it is, as we have said above, too weak to give political expression to its instinctive movements of resistance to American finance capital. Nor, is the problem one, as it is in the majority of the Latin-American countries, of struggle against a rival imperialism which disputes the booty, for in fact, the struggle against English imperialism—which began on the diplomatic field about the middle of the last century—was decided in the second and third decades of the 20th century in favor of American imperialism on the battlefield of capital investment and trade statistics. Between 1913 and 1926 American investments in Cuba increased by 1300 per cent, while English investments increased by only 7 per cent.
The principal problems for American imperialism in Cuba are those produced by its own internal difficulties, which are the difficulties of a regime of exploitation and domination which has based its strength on almost exclusive penetration into basic sectors of the national economy and which has come to be unbearable for the masses, at the very same time that it begins to show signs of internal decomposition. This problem has placed concretely before American imperialism in Cuba two questions: first, how to reconquer, neutralize or minimize those elements within itself that are developing in a sense contrary to itself, not however as independent elements opposing the advance of imperialism but—what is much more serious—as parts of that very same conjuncture of imperialist forces which is disintegrating as the internal contradictions grow stronger; and, secondly, how to maintain its rule over the oppressed and, exploited masses and forcibly carry out a pacification of the proletariat and of the poor peasantry who, followed by sections of the small city bourgeoisie and middle peasantry, are engaged under the leadership of the Communist Party in a growing struggle against the present bourgeois feudal imperialist rule of assassination and hunger.
Taking into account all the facts previously mentioned, it is possible to state categorically that Cuba at present constitutes the weakest link in the chain of Caribbean imperialism.
The beginnings of a definite rise in the revolutionary movement in Cuba can be dated from the last quarter of 1929, a period in which the radicalization of the working masses was shown by an avalanche of strikes, local and partial, which we can characterize as an offensive movement, culminating under the direction of the C. N. O. C. (National Confederation of Cuban Workers) and of the Communist Party, in the great political general strike of March 20, 1930, and in the formidable May First demonstrations of that year. From then on the working class movement has maintained a generally rising curve of development and is embarked on the road of open mass struggle against the imperialist and bloody Machado government, a struggle into which other sections of the population are also entering. The events which later marked this period of the rise of the revolutionary movement were the following: the entrance of the Cuban petty bourgeoisie into the struggle, a participation characterized by the students’ struggles commencing September 30, 1930; the armed uprising of the bourgeois opposition in August, 1931, and the later development of the terrorist campaign of the A. B. C. At the present time a whole series of events indicate in Cuba that the struggle is rising to a higher plane. The principal event which marks and characterizes this new period is the organized strike movement of the sugar workers (a strike which has extended to six of the sugar provinces). This movement was prepared for and is being led by the C. N. O. C. and by the Communist Party.
Other factors that characterize this phase of the revolutionary rise are firstly, the carrying out by the Party (during the period November to January) of four campaigns of a national character —the election campaign for the first of November, the hunger march of December 24th, the Mella commemoration of the 10th of January and the Lenin commemoration of the 21st of the same month. In spite of the defects and errors which we made in the preparation and carrying out of the campaigns, the extent and national character of the mobilization obtained was enormous, particularly if we take into account the relatively brief period in which they were carried through, and the open appearance of the Party as organizer under conditions of extreme terror. All the demonstrations clashed with police forces and with the army, resulting in many comrades wounded and some being killed. The funerals of the working class victims in Matanzas, in Santa Clara, transformed themselves into new spontaneous demonstrations of a Communist character.
Second, a renewal of the strike movement, which had declined very seriously as a result of the outlawing of the Red Trade Union organizations. Textile workers, shoe workers, cigar workers, transport workers and agricultural workers in the tobacco fields, have entered into strike struggles in different cities. This new wave of strikes received a tremendous impetus with the strike in the sugar mills.
Thirdly, the increase in the membership and in the influence of the Communist Party among the workers, among the poor peasants and other sections of the population. In the province of Santa Clara the Party increased its strength six times since the November elections.
Fourth, the transformation of the terrorist association, A. B. C., into a national reformist political party, and, fifthly, the latest maneuvers of the bourgeois opposition.
Let us now turn to an explanation of what in our judgment are the most important features of the strike of the workers in the sugar plantations and in the sugar industry. We will examine these characteristics on the basis of information which we have before us, materials which are certainly incomplete, but are first hand, and which in spite of their brevity—they are “news from the battle-front”—picture for us in the most complete way the heroism of the Cuban proletariat and of the valiant Communist Party of Cuba.
The strike in the sugar mills is an event of the greatest political importance for Cuba at the present time, because it is a genuinely revolutionary movement of the mases against imperialism. Many non-Marxian elements, although sympathetic with the revolutionary movement in Cuba, seem incapable of estimating the political importance of this strike precisely because its special significance eludes them, the more easily if their minds are stunned by the reverberation of the exploding bombs of the A. B. C. But what importance can we give in politics to actions, however brave or violent they be, which come from one or from ten men, as compared with the coordinated actions of hundreds and thousands of men, actions that possess in even greater degree the qualities of heroism and strength? What significance can we give in politics to the destruction effected by one or by a hundred bombs, even if they shatter the marble walls of the Capitol or wreck the cupola of the Presidential Palace as compared with the effect produced by these thousands of workers in the sugar industry, that is to say, in the very heart of the citadel of imperialism?
Basically, politics is concerned with masses. It is not a question of individuals. Basically in Cuba it is a question of oppression and of imperialist exploitation. When the Cuban masses launch a revolutionary struggle against imperialism, this fact overshadows all others. It is for this reason that the strike in the sugar mills presents the most eloquent reply to the arguments of all the enemies of the Cuban revolution, that is, to all the enemies of the people, from Machado, through the theoreticians of the A. B. C. and of the bourgeois-landlord opposition, all the way to the renegades from the Communist Party. In the face of this trike struggle in the sugar mills all the “Messiahs” and the programs of “salvation” of the professional bourgeois politicians now droop sadly and lifelessly like wet rags on a line; and all the clamor of the bursting bombs—and bombs by themselves have never overthrown a government in the whole of history—are not worth the scream of a single sugar mill siren calling the workers back, after a successful strike, to work; and Sandalio Junco’s speech on “passivity,” in which he says that “in Cuba, all strikes are condemned in advance to futility” looks even more ridiculous than the prophecy of Machado when he promised his masters in Washington that under his rule “no strike in Cuba would last for more than 24 hours.”
Let us now see what are the characteristics which give to this movement such a transcendent political importance over other events that have taken place in the country. The main characteristics are:
IT Is A MOVEMENT ORGANIZED BY THE C.N.0.C. AND BY THE COMMUNIST PARTY
The movement was organized by a national conference of workers in the sugar industry held in Santa Clara on the 26th and 27th of December, 1932, with representation from 32 sugar mills in all the six provinces, under the auspices and guidance of the C. N. O. C., together with the support of the Communist Party and other revolutionary organizations. We are not dealing therefore with a spontaneous movement, though the revolutionary spontaneity of the masses has played, and is playing, an important role.
IT IS A MASS STRUGGLE DIRECTED BY THE MASSES
From the information that we possess we calculate that not less than 20,000 workers are taking part in this movement. The strike has been prepared through regional conferences and committees of struggle, and is being directed by strike committees formed in each sugar mill. The leadership of the strike is in the hands of the masses themselves and all the committees have a mass character. Vacillating elements have been excluded from the direction of the strike.
IT Is A UNITED FRONT OF THE AGRICULTURAL WORKERS WITH THE WORKERS IN THE MILLS
As the movement developed, the workers organized themselves into the National Union of Sugar Industry Workers (S. N. O. I. A.). In struggle, as in organization, the industrial and agricultural workers have united together. The facts have shown that the organization of both groups in the sugar industry into one union is not only possible but indispensable, and facts have also shown that the most perfect organizational schemes have turned out to be simply dead letters when brought face to face with the living reality of the necessities of the struggle.
UNITY OF BLACK AND WHITE, OF NATIVE AND FOREIGN-BORN
In the strike in the great sugar mills, as in the demonstrations in the cities and generally in the struggle for immediate demands, a complete unity of action has been established between the white and black workers. This has been especially notable in the provinces of Santa Clara and Oriente, where the ruling classes have practiced the greatest discrimination. Also the theories which the reformists share with the anarchists that the Jamaican and Haitian workers are responsible for the miserable conditions of the sugar workers in Cuba has been once more exposed as a lie by the active participation of these foreign-born workers in the common fight. A group of Jamaican workers brought to the “Habana” sugar mill to work there with the object of breaking the strike, demanded their tools and, as soon as these were given them, unanimously voted to go on strike.
UNITY BETWEEN THE WORKERS AND PEASANTS
The base has also been laid for a solid united front between the poor and middle peasants and the workers in the sugar mills and plantations. Many planters have shown themselves to be decidedly on the side of the workers. Working class leaders in flight from the police have often found refuge and a hiding place in the huts of the peasants. In the Las Villas district the peasants donated 25 thousand pounds of vegetables for the strikers and their families. In another village (Manicaragua) a peasant assembly took place at which more than 400 workers were also present, where it was decided by the peasants that they would refuse to pay taxes. Many Regional Peasant Leagues are being organized with the assistance of the workers.
THE GROWTH OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY
The influence of the C. P. is growing among the workers and peasants as a consequence of the strike. In many places the Communist Party has become semi-legal, since the authorities find it almost impossible to suppress all the sympathizers of the Party. In the province of Santa Clara the number of Party members has increased sixfold in four months. In two of the sugar mills belonging to one of the largest imperialist concerns (Armour’s) enormous red flags with the sickle and hammer were hoisted above the factories.
FRATERNIZATION WITH THE ARMY
In several places, soldiers have refused to fire on the workers. Officers, frightened by the militancy of the masses, and no longer certain as to the trustworthiness of their men, have hesitated to give orders to shoot. In some villages where searches have been made for the illegal literature of the Communists and the C.N.O.C., the search has had to be made by the captain in person, while the soldiers themselves were confined to barracks for fear that if they were not they would forewarn the villagers of the impending inquisition. The influence of the revolutionary movement is infiltrating among the soldiers and gaining strength in the army of Machado.
The forms of struggle now being adopted by the masses in this strike are raising the fight to a level where already it is taking on the forms of an armed insurrection. Here are some examples. The agitation for the strike was carried out not only in the mills, but also in the neighboring towns, and the strike demands were written up not only on the factory walls, but also on the telegraph posts, on the highways, on the railroad cars, and on the walls of the houses. This work was accomplished by armed patrols, who frequently opened fire on the municipal police, scaring them away when they tried to interrupt the strikers. In one village the workers’ patrol arrested the Mayor and the telegraph operator, placing them under guard until the patrol was through with its work. In a sugar mill, the private police of the employers imprisoned the workers in the factory at the beginning of the strike in the plantations and forced them to grind the cane that had already been cut, but the agricultural workers took over the mill and set free their comrades. This mill was in the possession of the workers for several days. Self-defence groups were formed, and mass pickets fought the strike-breakers. These latter were a veritable armed militia, who scoured the country-side and were active in spreading the strike to other plantations. In other places, these groups, which by their number, social composition and organizations were the embryo of a workers’ and peasants’ red guard, were victorious in many encounters with government troops.
Thus the strike has developed forms of struggle which are patently those of armed insurrection, a fact which bears out concretely Comrade Sinani’s statement that in relation precisely “to the conditions of semi-slavery which obtain in the cane plantations of Cuba, to the denial of workers’ rights, and with the possibility open to the employers of physically annihilating the instigators of the least expression of discontent” that “in these conditions there is no other means or method of struggle open to the workers except open armed insurrection—since peaceful strikes, under a slave system, are excluded.”
We have painted in the main lines of the picture which the strike struggle in the sugar mills presents to us. We are, it is understood, far from suggesting that the characteristics which we have pointed out above are to be found in all the sugar mills affected by the strike, or can be encountered in all of the other mills in the same degree of intensity. The data which we have before us refers principally to sugar mills in the province of Santa Clara. But nevertheless the facts we have mentioned have their importance as signs of the rising revolutionary movement. These facts are definite and they indicate at the very least a series of partial victories in this movement. Later, with more complete information, will come the time to make an analysis of the defects and errors which we have committed during this conflict and to extract from it lessons for the future.
The enormous importance of these facts mentioned above lies in the possibilities that they will be extended to the whole working class movement, that they will become strengthened and more permanent as they lose the character of ephemeral phenomena accompanying this particular strike, as they will become widened and finally impregnate the whole revolutionary movement, bringing into existence the main prerequisites of a revolutionary situation in Cuba. Already potentially present in the revolutionary movement of the sugar workers, are the embryonic forms of the coming revolutionary situation. Without these prerequisites the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal revolution will not be able to march forward in Cuba on the path of victory.
* * *
American imperialism, caught in the trap of its own contradictions, is looking for a solution to the problems which its internal contradictions, as well as the rise of the revolutionary movement, place before it. Meanwhile imperialism, the exploiter and oppressor —represented in Cuba today by Machado and yesterday or tomorrow by some other man of iron—is trying to find a capitalist way out of the crisis; while the exploited and oppressed masses, under the leadership of the Party of the proletariat, are seeking the revolutionary solution. But, every move of the imperialists is foredoomed to carry with it its own negation.
The strike of the sugar workers in Cuba carries with it the message of greater struggles. ‘The red flags hoisted in the silence of dark night upon the factory chimneys of the Armour Company sugar mills, herald the raising of those other red banners which will float in the glare of the sunlight over all the factories of the whole sugar industry.
Eyes that are young today will not yet have grown old when they look upon this marvel.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/communist/v12n06-jun-1933-communist.pdf